Canadian Olympic boycott of Beijing Games seems unlikely despite tensions with China

The latest call for Canada to consider boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games is unlikely to spur Ottawa to confront tensions with China in the Olympic arena, due to an apparent lack of support for such an approach among most political parties.

Parties have criticisms of China's human rights record but make few calls for Olympic boycott

Journalists are seen touring Olympic facilities in Zhangjiakou, China, last month. The 2022 Beijing Games seem poised to go ahead despite some calls for a boycott over China's human rights record. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

The latest call for Canada to consider boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games is unlikely to spur Ottawa to confront tensions with China in the Olympic arena, due to an apparent lack of support for such an approach among most political parties.

Yet on the eve of an expected federal election call, Canada's major political parties are expressing their ongoing concerns about human rights in China — including the treatment of its Muslim minority Uyghur population — as well as the plight of Canadians pulled into the fray of deteriorating relations between the two countries.

Beijing's Winter Games are less than six months away, and have faced repeated calls for a boycott over human-rights issues, including from federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole earlier this week.

O'Toole made a renewed call for Ottawa to consider boycotting the Winter Games, citing concerns for Canadians' safety in China amid a handful of high-profile detainments involving Canadian citizens — one of whom faces a death sentence.

"I know how hard our athletes are training for Beijing," O'Toole told reporters Tuesday. "But we are approaching a point where it won't be safe for Canadians, including Olympic athletes, to travel to China."

WATCH | Conservative leader says Canada should consider Olympic boycott: 

Conservative leader says Canada should consider boycotting 2022 Beijing Olympics

2 years ago
Duration 1:31
Conservative leader Erin O'Toole says Canada should consider boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics after Chinese courts upheld the death sentence for Robert Schellenberg on charges of drug smuggling.

CBC News asked the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for a response to O'Toole's comments. On Saturday, its media relations team said via email that "the safety of all Games participants is a top priority ... and we have all the required assurances from our Chinese hosts that the Olympic Charter and Host City contract will be upheld."

The IOC also said it "recognizes and upholds human rights" in its Olympic charter and works to ensure "all interested parties" respect the charter "in the context of the Games, and the Chinese organizers have done so."

No boycott push from Liberals, NDP

Despite O'Toole's remarks, a Canadian boycott effort doesn't appear to have political momentum, with neither the Liberals, nor the New Democrats calling for such an action.

Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault's office told CBC News in an email that the federal government "is deeply concerned by horrific reports of human rights violations against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region" and noted sanctions targeting those "implicated in the repression."

An employee walks beside snow-making machines for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Zhangjiakou, China, last month. Beijing also faced boycott calls ahead of the Summer Games in 2008. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

The office said it recognizes the independence of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees and is confident "they will continue to consider our athletes' lifetime of training and dedication to prepare for the Games and Canada's commitment to fundamental rights for all peoples in any future decision leading up to the Games."

Jack Harris, the NDP foreign affairs critic, said a boycott would "be devastating" for athletes.

"Just as we've seen in Tokyo this summer, the Olympics give the world the opportunity to come together over something positive — which is really important," Harris said in an emailed statement.

He said Canada should work with other nations to convince China that their current approach to foreign relations is not working. 

"Arbitrarily detaining people is the wrong approach and will never stop unless the world comes together to make it clear to China that there are better ways to advocate for their interests."

Calls to relocate 2022 Beijing Games

Alexis Brunelle-Duceppe, a Bloc Québécois MP and the party's spokesperson on human-rights issues, said he continues to hope to see the Winter Games relocated — something he and a dozen other MPs urged the IOC to do.

In February, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul and several Green MPs also called for Canada to support moving the 2022 Beijing Games and even suggested Canada could host.

Activists in Dharmsala, India, wear masks of IOC President Thomas Bach and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a street protest in February against the Winter Olympics being held in Beijing next year. (Ashwini Bhatia/The Associated Press)

The prospect of relocating the Games seems remote. Veteran Olympic officials from Canada said months ago that it was too late to consider such a scenario.

Calls for boycotting Olympic Games are nothing new, including for Beijing, which also faced boycott calls ahead of the 2008 Summer Games.

Russell Field, an associate professor in the faculty of kinesiology and recreation management at the University of Manitoba, said that in addition to a lack of political will, there are multiple levels of Olympic organizers that want these Games to go forward.

"I don't think the IOC will let it happen, I don't think the Beijing Olympic organizers will let it happen and I don't think the Canadian Olympic Committee will let it happen," Field told CBC News.

He noted there is a long history of Olympics and amateur sports trying to insulate themselves from politics and said the diplomatic tensions Canada faces with China, "are exactly the kind of politics that the IOC would want to divorce itself from."

The IOC's media relations team said the organization "must remain neutral on all global political issues," due to "the diverse participation in the Olympic Games."

Boycotts are 'symbolic politics'

Lynette Ong, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said the use of a boycott would, in theory, be bringing a confrontation with China to another level.

"Boycotting is symbolic politics, signalling international censure against the host country," Ong said in an email, pointing to the spotlight it provides on an issue, with the intent of shaming and blaming its target.

"The question remains whether it will induce desirable behaviour or trigger backlash."

Visitors are seen near a skating-themed sculpture late last month outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

The mere fact that such a proposition has been raised by O'Toole won't necessarily draw a reaction from the Chinese government, though.

Juan Wang, a McGill University associate professor of political science, said China views these things in context, and understands that Canadian politicians face pressure from constituents on various issues.

But she said it's possible the boycott issue could be raised by either side of the bilateral relationship.

"It could be a chip used by either party to advance their claims," said Wang, who agreed that a boycott of these Games seems highly unlikely. 

Athletes should choose, former Olympian says

Canadian Olympics officials have argued that boycotts "don't work" and tend to punish athletes, rather than the intended target.

Angela Schneider, the director of Western University's International Centre for Olympics Studies and a silver medallist in rowing at the 1984 Summer Games, agrees Olympic boycotts aren't typically effective.

Canada was among the 60-plus countries that participated in a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. The above shows the Olympic flame in its cauldron at the Luzhniki stadium during athletics competitions at those Games. (Sergei Kivrin/Reuters)

"I think the history of boycotts shows they really do not work," she said, citing the example of the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. 

Canada and dozens of other nations participated in that boycott, but Soviet troops didn't end up leaving Afghanistan until 1989.

The IOC's media relations team referred to the same boycott, as well as the counter-boycott that followed in 1984.

"These two sporting boycotts destroyed the dreams and careers of thousands of athletes from all over the world and deprived those athletes of their rights; but they never achieved any of the political objectives intended by the governments," the IOC's media relations team said.

Schneider said the majority of Olympians get just "one kick at the can," and believes the athletes, not politicians, should be making the decision about if they will participate in a boycott. 

"If it's a moral choice, people have to have the freedom to choose." 

Schneider said it's easy to make a call for athletes to take part in a boycott, but creating policy to drive change in China is hard.

"Don't use them as pawns."